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"Be thou faithful unto death."--REVELATIONS II. 10.
Up in the gorgeously draped tribune, beneath the striped awning, the Emperor Caligula watched the arrival of his pet panther with a grin of delight upon his face. He rubbed his hands together in obvious glee, and anon pointed out the beauty of the ferocious creature to the Augusta Dea Flavia, who coldly nodded in response.
She had sat beside the Cæsar all through the long, weary morning, giving but few signs of life. Many there were who thought that, overcome with drowsiness owing to the heat, she had fallen asleep with her head buried in the fragrant depths of the lilies which she held.
Certain it is that throughout the spectacle she had kept her eyes closed, and when death-cries filled the air with their terrible echo, she had once or twice put her small hands to her ears.
Whenever she had done that the Cæsar had laughed, and apparently made jest of her with the other Augustas who, in their turn, appeared greatly amused.
The spectacle indeed had been somewhat tame, and but for the human chase of a while ago, would have been intolerably dull. There was surely nothing in the death of a few miserable slaves to upset the nerves of a Roman princess. As for the gladiators! well! they were trained and well paid to die.
Not far from the Cæsar's person, and leaning against the wall of the tribune in his wonted attitude, the praefect of Rome had also stood silently by. The Emperor had ordered his presence, nor could the praefect of the city be absent when the sacred person of the Cæsar was abroad amongst his people.
But no one could say whether the Anglicanus had seen or heard anything of what went on around him. His eyes of a truth were wide open, but they did not gaze down upon the arena; they were hidden by that dark frown upon his brow, and no one could guess whereon was his ardent gaze so resolutely fixed, no one could guess that from where he stood Taurus Antinor could perceive the outline of a delicate profile, with the softly rounded cheek, and a tiny shell-like ear half hidden by the filmy veil of curls.
He could see the lids with their fringe of golden lashes fall wearily over the eyes, he could trace the shudder of horror which shook the slender figure from time to time.
Once the lilies dropped from Dea Flavia's hand, and the soft swishing sound which they made in falling caused her to wake as from a reverie. She looked all round her with wide-open eyes, and her glance suddenly encountered those of the praefect of Rome. It seemed to him that her very soul was in her eyes then, a soul which at that moment appeared full of horror at all that she had seen.
But as quickly as she had thus involuntarily revealed her soul, so did she conceal it again beneath her favoured veil of unbendable pride. She frowned on him as if angered that he should have surprised a secret, and almost it seemed then that she flashed on him a look of hatred and contempt.
After that she turned away, and with her foot kicked away the fallen lilies. She sat now leaning forward, motionless and still, with her elbows buried in an embroidered cushion before her and her chin resting on her hands.
Oh! if he only could, how gladly would he have seized her even now and carried her away from this nauseating scene of bloodshed and cruelty. He crossed his arms over his powerful chest till every muscle seemed to crack with the effort of self-control. His very soul longed to take her away, his sinews ached with the desire to seize her and to bear her in his arms away, away beyond the cruel encircling walls of Rome, away from her marble palaces and temple-crowned hills, away over the marshes of the Campania and the belt of the blue sea beyond to that far-off land of Galilee where he himself had found happiness and peace.
The Cæsar had commanded his presence here to-day, and he had come because the Cæsar had commanded. To the last he would render unto Cæsar that which was Cæsar's. But he had stood by with eyes that only saw a golden head crowned with diamonds, a delicate oval cheek coloured like a peach and tiny fleecy curls that fluttered softly in the breeze.
There was no longer any sorrow in his heart, no longer any remorse or thought of treachery. The man in the little hut on the Aventine had shown him the way how to lay down his burden of weakness and of sin.
He knew that he loved Dea Flavia with all the ardour of an untamed heart that has never before tasted the sweetness of love. He knew that he loved her with all the passion of a soul that at last hath found a mate. But now he knew also that in this love there was no thought of treachery to Him in Whose service he was prepared to lay down his life. He knew that never again would the exquisite vision of this fair young pagan stand between him and the Cross, but rather that she would point to him--ignorantly and unconsciously--the way up to Golgotha.
For renunciation awaited him--that also did he know. A few more days in the service of the Cæsar, and his promise to remain in Rome would no longer bind him, since Caligula had returned from abroad.
The rest of his life was at the bidding of Him Who mutely from the Cross had demanded his allegiance: a lonely hut somewhere on the Campania, or further if God demanded it, a life of strenuous effort to win souls for Christ, and the renunciation of all that had made life easy and pleasant hitherto. God alone knew how easy that would have been to him forty-eight hours ago. Taurus Antinor hated and despised the life of Rome, the tyranny of a demented Cæsar, the indolence of the daily routine, the ever-recurrent spectacles of hideous, inhuman cruelty. Until that midday hour in the Forum four days ago, he had viewed his new prospective life with a sense of infinite relief.
But now renunciation meant something more. Detachment from Rome and all its pomps, its glories, and its cruelties meant also detachment from the presence of Dea Flavia. It meant the tearing out of his very heartstrings which had found root at a woman's feet. It meant the drawing of an impenetrable veil between life itself and all that henceforth could alone make life dear.
He had dreamed a dream, the exquisite beauty of which had wrought havoc in his innermost soul, but the awakening had come before the glorious dream had found its complete birth. Jesus of Nazareth had called to him from the Cross, but even as He called, the pierced, sacred hand had pointed to the broad path strewn with gold and roses, filled with the fragrance of lilies and thrilled with the song of mating birds: and the dying voice had gently murmured: "Choose!"
The soldier had chosen and was ready to go. But renunciation was not to be the easy turning away from a road that was none too dear--it was to be a sacrifice!--the taking up of the cross and the slow, weary mounting up, up to Calvary, with aching back and sweating brow and the dreary tragedy of utter loneliness.
It meant the giving up of every delight of manhood, of happiness in a woman's smile, of rapture in a woman's kiss. It meant the giving up of every joy in seeing her pass before him, of hearing the swish of her skirts on the pavement of the city; it meant the giving up of all hope ever to win her, of all thought of a future home, the patter of children's feet, the rocking of a tiny cradle. It meant the sacrifice of every thought of happiness and of every desire of body and of soul.
It meant the nailing of a heart to the foot of a cross.
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